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Zaffire: New Name, New Approach

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News Analysis
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3/21/2000
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What's in a name? Not a lot when it comes to Zaffire Inc. http://www.zaffire.com, judging by its recent moves. The startup was called "New Access Communications" until a couple of weeks ago, when it decided that the term "access" was sending out the wrong signals and a new image was needed.

Now the metamorphosis is complete, and Zaffire has unveiled its developments to the world. It's built a platform that incorporates a series of discrete products with specific functions that fit into one rack and are managed as one system. Taken together, the platform packs everything a carrier needs to roll out next-generation Internet services quickly and at very low cost.

So, has Zaffire got it right this time around? Its approach certainly boasts some interesting technology, but it's up against some tough competition. A lot of other startups have got similar ideas (see Sonet Goes POP). And the idea of packing everything into a single solution is only likely to appeal to new carriers. Incumbents may be scared off.

To understand why, it's best to take a closer look at Zaffire's "Advanced Optical Services Architecture" platform. It incorporates not only DWDM (dense wave division multiplexing) gear and an OC-48/OC-192 Sonet cross-connect but also an ATM core switch and an MPLS (multi protocol label switching) router.

Putting all of these functions into a single platform cuts capital costs by an order of magnitude and enables carriers to make more efficient use of infrastructure, according to Rob Keil, Zaffire's vice president of marketing. "We'll also accelerate and simplify provisioning," he adds.

All the same, not everybody is convinced that solutions that pack so many functions together give carriers the best deal in the long run. For one thing, it's unlikely that every function of the platform will be best of breed, given that some vendors are devoting all of their efforts to creating dedicated ATM switches, routers, and so on. Moreover, products such as these make it tough for carriers to separate their transport infrastructure from their service provisioning platforms. And keeping the two areas separate has been a strategic objective for many network operators.

Zaffire's platform provides "a great way for new carriers to ramp up quickly," says Scott Clavenna, principal analyst at Pioneer Consulting LLC (http://www.pioneerconsulting.com). "But it may be a hard sell for existing carriers, who typically resist combining transport and service provisioning on one network," he adds.

Zaffire has anticipated this problem in advance. There's no need, Zaffire says, for a carrier to invest in its whole platform at once. According to Zaffire, if a carrier wants only metro DWDM functionality, it can opt for a box that delivers that function. Then, if ATM switching is needed, another shelf is bolted onto the rack and a unit added--and so forth in mix-and-match fashion. Further, the vendor indicates that different components of its platform can be housed in separate central-office locations, even though they're managed together. "We're not forcing carriers into a one-box solution," Keil insists.

But it's clear that the full benefit of Zaffire's product lies in its consolidation of multiple functions. It is designed to sit at the edge of optical backbones, in the carrier's regional or metropolitan area central office or point of presence, to enable the operator to offer a wide range of services to customers, and to bill for those services--all from a common platform.

In addition to these capabilities, Zaffire touts its "Fractional Wavelength" technique, which squashes more Sonet connections into every wavelength, and allow portions of different wavelengths to be treated as one connection.

Zaffire intends to add MPLS to the platform to enhance its capabilities--as soon as that approach is standardized. Work on extending MPLS to create multi-protocol lambda switching is underway in the newly formed MPLS Forum, the (IETF), the Optical Domain Service Interconnect (ODSI) coalition (see Third Front Opens on Standards War), and the Optical Internetworking Forum (OIF). An IETF standard is expected to result form all these efforts (in which Zaffire is actively participating) sometime this year. When that happens, Zaffire's product will enable carriers to view and control packet flows and offer customers different grades of service at different prices.

Zaffire is intent, however, on not offering a prestandard version of MPLS. "We will be 100 percent standards compliant," says Keil.

Zaffire isn't alone in its approach. Tenor Networks Inc. http://www.tenornetworks.com has already announced a similar product, the TN250G Optical Service Switch (see Tenor Builds A Network Toll Booth ), which also will use MPLS to provision optical networks. But Tenor is aimed at a different portion of the network--that part where the optical network core meets the edge of the transport network. Tenor's box would in effect be used to aggregate connections from platforms like Zaffire's that are closer to the customer.

Zaffire also faces competition from ONI Systems Inc. http://www.onisystems.com, whose upcoming ONLINE7000 series switch (also slated for second-quarter release) is designed like Zaffire's for transport and provisioning in the metro core. Like Zaffire, ONI says it will offer packet-level filtering and control of optical services. Since neither ONI's nor Zaffire's product is shipping, however, only time will reveal the relative merits of each.

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